Training Camp 2018 XI: Friday's Offensive Fireworks

Aug 10, 2018

So I type up this long post last night and this morning. And then when I go to publish it, I hit not one but TWO wrong buttons which A) posted the first draft of the post instead of the final draft and B) deleted the post I wrote. Haven't been that mad at myself in a long time.

When I do that, it puts the post on the forum page but deletes it from my admin page, so I can't even go delete the snippet on the forum. If you want to see the beginnings of that post, you can head over to the forum and read the first 150 words before it cuts off mid-sentence. If you want to read the end of that post, well, you're gonna have to wait until a re-write it this weekend. So mad at myself for being so dumb at interneting.

So here's Training Camp 2018 roman numeral XI for a second time. And then that Expansion Team post will be, like, XV this weekend or something.

I haven't been able to write a giddy camp post since maybe 2016, so I can't wait to type this one out. The offense, after struggling every single practice last summer and the first six practices this summer, had a breakout in a big way this morning. Yes, that means the defense had a bad day (more on that later), but this was the kind of offensive camp performance where you say "I don't care if we're playing Iowa or Northwestern - we would be moving the ball today".

First, the disclaimers. It's bump drill, which means no tackling. 11 on 11, linemen blocking lineman just like it's a regular play, but the ballcarrier isn't tackled. It's two hand touch. There's still hitting - if the linebacker is in the gap when the tailback comes through, he's not reaching out with two hands to tap him. He wraps him up, tries to punch the ball out, and the whistle blows. So I guess calling it "two hand touch" isn't correct - it's just "don't take the tackle to the ground". Wrap him up and then let him go.

After 10 years of watching bump drill, I have a pretty good feel for the plays that were actual long running plays and the plays which were a tailback who couldn't be taken to the ground squirting out of the hole and running a long way. Most pass plays are pass plays (throw and catch) - you just have to judge whether the yards after catch were legitimate yards after catch.

And one other thing. You have to remember that the quarterbacks are in orange jerseys and can't be hit at all. A quarterback is about 37 times more comfortable in a pocket where the defensive end bearing down on him can only tap him, not take his head off. As a freshman in 2010, Chandler Whitmer looked like a superstar in bump drill. Once the scrimmages came, he couldn't ever find the same rhythm.

With all of that said, what a performance from the offense. Lovie mentioned it in his press conference. I'm sure you saw others tweeting it and writing about it. After six days of the defense winning most of these 11 on 11 battles, on the seventh day, it was all offense.

Wait, I can knock that one out of the park. On the seventh day, the defense rested. DEFENSE RESTED LIKE A COURT ROOM AND ON THE SEVENTH DAY GOD RESTED LIKE THE BIBLE SEE I COMBINED THE TWO.

Pardon my exuberance. It's been so long since I could write about something exciting.

The star of the show was AJ Bush. And he knew it. When he'd complete a long pass, if he wasn't the QB for the next rep, he'd run the length of the field to celebrate with the receiver. I've written it a dozen times, but he's so cocky/confident. The jury is still out on whether "confident" means "will try to feed the ball into triple coverage and throw three picks the first game", but for now, it's really fun. The defense hates him sometimes, and that's a very good thing.

He threw a couple passes which were no-doubters. Meaning, I don't care if we're playing Ohio State and their incredible secondary (and pass rush) - he threaded that in there perfectly. At one point I think I tweeted that if it was a game, it would be 35-0 in the second quarter. It was that kind of "and another one - AND ANOTHER ONE" performance.

It wasn't just passing. Mike Epstein broke one long run untouched. Ra'Von Bonner broke one long run where nobody came anywhere close to touching him (think Epstein's South Florida touchdown last year). One play had this great kickout block from Kendrick Green that made you say "hey, this kid can play". Again, it was play after play after play.

The best thing to see was the confidence. I'm a big believer in team confidence. Momentum. After being mocked by the defense over and over for six practices (when the defense gets a pick six, they all - like, every player - run past the offense to celebrate in the endzone), the offense started getting louder and louder. And more confident and more confident.

You know how I wrote that the first Saturday scrimmage last year was the worst offensive football I ever saw at any camp (including eight, count 'em, EIGHT interceptions)? Well, this was the best offensive football I've seen at camp since 2015. It's just one practice, so you have to think of it as "a great couple of drives in the first quarter against Purdue and now we have to continue to do that for 45 more minutes of game time", but it was certainly encouraging to see.

The best throw was from freshman QB Matt Robinson, who dropped a dime (an absolute dime) to Carmoni Green for a long in-stride touchdown. Granted, that was against the third string defense, so if he was facing a first-string pass rush, he might not have time to wait for such a route to open up, but it was such a great throw that it bears mentioning. Robinson is clearly ahead of the other two freshman QB's right now, but in terms of understanding the offense and knowing when to tuck and run, I think he's still well behind Bush and Thomas.

Which is one thing that brings me back to earth a little bit. As you know, this offense - the RichRod offense from Michigan and Arizona - is dependent on the QB running the ball. The best QB running the ball so far has been Cam Thomas, but he ranks third (maybe fourth) in the passing department so far. If we could combine what Bush has done with his arm so far with Thomas' legs, then we're really getting somewhere, but I've seen some things with Bush running that concern me and many things with Thomas passing that concern me (same concerns as we saw in the spring scrimmage). So this fall scrimmage next Saturday in the stadium (Saturday the 18th, 3-5 pm, open to the public) will tell us a lot. Get a live pass rush, game situations, actual third-and-nine pressure, and see what we have in some of these QB's. I'm afraid that Bush might be a bit mistake-prone, Thomas still struggles in the passing game, and Robinson comes crashing back down to earth.

But, for one day, that was a lot of fun. Actual football offense instead of offensive football.

Other notes from Friday:

+ As Lovie mentioned at the presser, Jamal Milan went down with a knee injury. No tests yet, so we don't know anything, but if he's out for an extended period of time, that's a massive blow to the defense. Milan got a medical redshirt for his 2015 season (even though he played in a few games), so he's in his fourth year of Big Ten football (as a junior). That's the most experience on the defense. And he was one of three guys in Chicago for Big Ten Media Days, which tells you that the coaches consider him one of the most important players on the team. Hoping against hope that it's just a sprain or something.

+ Defensive tackle Lere Oladipo continues to impress me. He's one of the three players who redshirted last year. Still probably a year away (who isn't?), but that's another piece for the future of this defensive line.

And no, I don't think you can combine these two points. If Milan is out for a long time, then yes, Oladipo will play more, but he's not ready to replace Milan yet. Two years from now, maybe, but right now, he'd struggle like most every freshman DT struggles.

And while we're on the subject, I don't think Calvin Avery or Verdis Brown are ready to replace any upperclassman injuries yet either. Really need Milan to be healthy.

+ I took note of the first string kickoff coverage guys today. That usually tells you who they're looking at to be the special teams guys this fall. The ones: S Kendall Smith, CB Cam Watkins, LB Jacob Hollins, CB Kerby Joseph, DB Michael Marchese, DE Ayo Shogbonyo, DB Christian Bobak, LB Dele Harding, S Delano Ware, and CB Tony Adams.

I should be talking about Michael Marchese more. He's the walkon getting the most snaps (as a second string safety). Lovie loves guys who always make the right read, and I think Lovie loves the Marchese brothers because they're consistently in the right spot.

+ Biggest concerns right now:

  1. Depth on the offensive line. They haven't changed the first string OL once in seven practices. Which means there are only five guys they like right now. Which is so very scary heading into a season.
  2. Youth on the defensive line. I just wish we could fast-forward 12 months. I feel like a young line like this can just get worn down against most every Big Ten opponent.
  3. Third wide receiver. Dudek and Smalling will be great - someone else needs to step up. Actually, two or three someone elses.
  4. Confusion on the offense. There's a lot of Rod Smith stepping in and saying "I called Foxtrot not Tango!!" (not actual calls), You're probably going to still see a lot of that in September.
  5. Defensive confidence when the opponent is racking up points (like today). Games like Rutgers last year. Rutgers is suddenly up 21-10 and you sense that the defense is all "here we go again". Can we kill that shoulder slump and actually respond?

I think that's about it. Sorry to end on a down note, but I feel like I was a little too hyped-up at the beginning there. But it felt good. Actual, real, move-the-ball-down-the-field-and-then-immediately-do-it-again offense.

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deadguy on August 10 @ 09:26 PM CDT

This was a great read. I'm almost to the point where I believe we can win more than 3 games this year.

ATOillini on August 11 @ 09:36 AM CDT

Well....I see Maryland is on the schedule. Given what’s transpiring there at the moment our chances probably look a bit better.

deadguy on August 11 @ 09:43 AM CDT

Maybe. Illinois went 5-7 under Cubit after TB was fired a week before the season started so I don't see Maryland as being that vulnerable this season. It will hurt them more in terms of recruiting for the Class of 2019. They still have solid recruiting classes stacked on top of each other and those guys aren't going anywhere as a result of this.

Maybe this will help us in the 2021 game against Maryland.

Bear8287 on August 11 @ 02:28 PM CDT

Wow. Very sad that a young athlete had to lose his life before any action may occur to remedy this situation.

The inside story of a toxic culture at Maryland football ESPN

"I would never, ever, ever allow my child to be coached there."
-- Former Maryland staff member

Bear8287 on August 11 @ 12:41 PM CDT

I like the optimism, but I think that anyone who calls for more than 3 wins, should call out where those 4+ wins are coming from :-D.

I think I see 2 sure thing wins (remembering that there's no such thing as a "sure thing") and then there's the hope that the Illini knock off someone else.

Here's the schedule:

  • Kent State
  • WIU
  • USF (@Soldier Field)
  • PSU
  • @RU
  • PU
  • @WI
  • @MA
  • MN
  • @NE
  • IA
  • @NW

The Illini should be favored in the first two games and then are underdogs the rest of the season?

Here are some stats from another site:

Highest percent of underclassmen on college football rosters:

  • 76.5% IlliniFootball
  • 73.6% Appalachian State
  • 71.4% Wake Forest
  • 71.3% UCLA
  • 70.6% Virginia
  • 69.9% Minnesota

Fewest upperclassmen on college football rosters:

  • 24 IlliniFootball
  • 29 Appalachian State
  • 31 UCLA

And of those 24 upperclasmen, 8 are seniors? (Should keep the ceremonies at the Iowa game short and sweet.)

Here's a quote from an article (Roster Turnover On Steroids) Robert wrote back in December,

Why so many transfers? Because Lovie is taking the youngest team in college football and... somehow making it younger. This is not a rebuild - it's a complete and total reboot.

Here's hoping he knows what he's doing.

Yes, here's hoping. :-) Biggest concern for next year is who's going to be the QB.

Just hoping that there will at least be some more excitement and scoring for the team this year.

Go Illini!

Bear8287 on August 11 @ 02:39 PM CDT

Oh hey, decided to check out Robert's unfinished "Training Camp 2018 XI: Revisiting The Expansion Team" post and basically found out that I'm repeating a lot of what he's putting into his post. (I'm feelin' you Robert. :-D )

I'll look forward to reading the rest of it, once it's posted.

deadguy on August 11 @ 04:26 PM CDT

I generally leave the predictions to others because I'm terrible at making predictions. I'd rather reflect.

Full disclosure: I expected Illinois to go 0-12 in 2013. Why? Illinois lost a lot of key players from the 2012 Defense and the 2012 Offense was a disaster. This was also a team with a joke of a Head Coach that had only won 2 games in the prior season. I figured it was time for Illinois to lose to an FCS school (SIU) and then they'd get rolled for the rest of the season.

What I didn't realize was that Miami (OH) would be one of the worst FBS teams I've ever seen in person and that Purdue would be so dreadful. The SIU game was won by a touchdown and Cincinnati fell apart when they lost their starting QB to an injury. Also, love him or hate him, Cubit did improve the offense.

So when I say I can see Illinois winning 3+ games, I'm basing this on the fact that the Offense literally can not get worse and I see no reason why the Defense won't be improved from what we saw last year. I do miss Odenigbo, Crawford, Jones, Dunlap and Nelson, though. Just using the 2 wins from last year as guidance for how this team will do this year, 3 wins sounds about right.

I can also envision a season that ends up being 1-11 if Illinois falters against WIU and there are injuries to any of our projected starters on the OL.

As far as picking those 3+ wins, a waste of time, IMO. I'll leave that to others.

It's hard enough to get a grip on our roster let alone our 12 opponents. I know Kent St. picked up Woody Barrett, but other than that, they were a disaster last year. On the flip side, Ball State was a disaster by nearly any objective measure and we got lucky with that win. WIU has a new coach but returns their QB and RB. Lots of instate kids on that roster would love nothing more than to upend a school that did not extend offers to them. USF loses a lot but they humiliated us last year.

Then there's the conference schedule.

Someone mentioned Maryland above. They are way more talented than us. Just stick an interim coach in there and keep their QBs upright and I don't see why we can go into College Park and come away with a victory.

Minnesota is very young but they aren't as young as us and they are probably more talented. They only have one scholarship QB, and they could have problems if he goes down or struggles. On the flip side, they had a horrific QB back there against us last year and pulled off the victory.

Purdue lost a lot from last year but it will be hard to beat a Jeff Brohm coached team.

Rutgers humiliated us with their third string QB. They had zero issues moving the ball on us. I'll believe we can stop them when I see it with my own eyes. I know their OC is gone and there will probably be someone else behind Center, but what I saw last year was embarrassing.

I can go on, but you get the point.

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